The Queen’s Gambit Is Played as a Chess Opening

The Queen’s Gambit is more than the name of the latest Netflix mega-hit. It’s one of the oldest and best openings in the game of chess and the one Beth uses (spoiler alert!) to defeat Russian grandmaster Vasily Borgov to become the world’s top chess player.

In the Queen’s Gambit, whether Black accepts or declines the gambit, White has good chances to secure an advantage in the center.

This chess opening appeals to players who like games that require long-term strategic planning. If you enjoy applying subtle pressure until your opponent finally cracks, this opening may be right for you. And as Beth demonstrated, this is one of the best chess openings!

A quick look at the Queen’s Gambit
The Queen’s Gambit occurs after the moves 1.d4 d5 2.c4 (Check out our article for a quick refresher on chess notation). It isn’t entirely correct to characterize White’s second move as a gambit because Black really can’t hang on to the pawn. If Black does capture the pawn on c4, it’s usually with the intention of allowing White to recapture it later.

White tries to gain an advantage in the center by attacking Black’s pawn on d5. If the pawn is removed, the advance e2-e4 is facilitated, giving White a potentially powerful pawn center. Black can decline the gambit in a variety of ways, or simply capture the pawn.

If Black captures the pawn, the opening is referred to as the Queen’s Gambit Accepted. If Black doesn’t take the offered pawn and protects the d-pawn with e7-e6, the opening is called the Queen’s Gambit Declined. The Queen’s Gambit Declined can lead to a rich variety of strategically complex variations.

Many chess openings can be arrived at via different move orders, which is referred to as transposition. The most likely move order for the Queen’s Gambit is 1.d4 d5 2.c4, for example, but 1.c4 d5 2.d4 amounts to the same thing.

It isn’t normally recommended for Black to try to hold on to this pawn. The basic idea is to develop rapidly and try to saddle White with an isolated d-pawn by playing …c5 and …cxd4. The isolated d-pawn is an intriguing structure in chess. If it can be blockaded (prevented from advancing), it may turn into a weakness and have to be defended by pieces. Pieces don’t like performing guard duty for pawns!

However, if it can advance, it can often break down Black’s defenses and pave the way for a winning attack. Grandmaster games over the years have featured many a delicate dance with an isolated d-pawn.

When things go White’s way in the Queen’s Gambit
White can advance the d-pawn from d4 to d5 and disrupt the coordination of Black’s pieces. It’s surprising to see how rapidly Black’s position can crumble.

In a 1995 game in Sweden between Ulf Andersson (as White) and Anatoly Karpov, Black gave White an isolated d-pawn and then tried to prevent its advance. It must’ve been a shock to Karpov when Andersson advanced the pawn anyway.

When things go Black’s way in the Queen’s Gambit
Black can saddle White with an isolated d-pawn and prevent it from advancing from d4 to d5. The pawn becomes weak and gets in the way of White’s pieces. As the endgame approaches, the d-pawn’s weakness grows more and more pronounced.

In a game from 1997 played in San Francisco between Guillermo Rey (White) and Alexander Baburin, Black was able to isolate White’s d-pawn and prevent it from advancing. Baburin then attacked it repeatedly, causing White’s pieces to become passive in defense. Eventually, White couldn’t meet Black’s threats, and the d-pawn fell.

Black occupies the d5 square with his knight, and White has no way to dislodge it. If White captures on d5, it’s important for Black to recapture with a piece rather than a pawn to maintain the blockade.

In 1971, Robert James Fischer (nicknamed Bobby) shocked the chess world by winning 19 consecutive games against an extremely high level of competition. This feat has been compared to throwing back-to-back no-hitters in major league baseball. During his peak playing period, from the mid 1960s into the early ’70s, players spoke of “Fischer Fever,” where they felt ill just having to play against him.

Just as with José Raúl Capablanca, Fischer had an aura of invincibility — which wasn’t far from the truth. Fischer was head and shoulders above the best players of his day.

His abrupt withdrawal from chess was tragic. Rumors of Fischer sightings were rampant, and the public was often tantalized by stories of his impending reemergence. Unfortunately, Fischer waited more than 20 years before playing in public again. His behavior, always intense, became increasingly odd over the years and prevented him from ever again competing at the highest levels.

The position in part a of the following figure occurred in the game Fischer-Bent Larsen from Potoroz in 1958. It’s white’s turn to move. How does white crack black’s defense? White plays 22. Rxh5.

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